Michelin Star Chef Julien Royer of Odette Restaurant Talks About What Fine Dining Means in 2017April 12, 2017
Julien Royer is the head chef and creative brain behind the two-michelin star Odette Restaurant in National Gallery Singapore. Hailing from France, where he grew up in a family farm, Royer creates modern French cuisine in a restaurant that is inspired by his grandmother for whom the restaurant is named.
Royer was the chef behind Jaan, which was awarded the 11th spot on the Asia’s 50 Best list in 2015, and 74th in the World’s 100 Best. He left following to pursue his own project, the critically claimed Odette Restaurant which is placed on this year’s 11th spot for Asia’s 50 Best. His restaurant is designed to inspire a child-like sense of wonder and discovery, from the art on the walls and hanging from the ceiling by Singaporean artist Dawn Ng, to the inviting interiors by Sacha Leong, culminating in an unparalleled culinary experience by Royer himself.
Kind, sincere, and filled with energetic excitement, Royer sits with us for 10 minutes as we discuss his background, what inspires him, why he doesn’t like to call himself an artist.
What was it like growing up in a farm? Well, it was our playground. We grew up outside. Always outside. Whether it was 35 degrees or minus 5, we were outside. So spending a lot of time playing with animals, playing with the season, the snow, the autumn, the leaves. We grew up outside. This is what I remember. When I was a teenager, I started to help. I helped for the wood, for the feeding of the animals, I’d help to shovel… [We had] beef and poultry. We’d have chicken, duck, guinea fowl and goose. And then vegetables. A lot. And a big, big garden. Then we had horses, but not for the meat. [laughs]
What influenced your decision to become a chef? This is coming from my grandmother Odette. This is why the restaurant is called after her. Because as I said earlier, it really is the starting point. She showed me that food can be a fantastic vehicle of pleasure, passion.
How does growing up in that kind of setting affect your work as a chef? The farm influenced the roots and the essence and the DNA of the cooking. What I try to do is to give some real flavor. Some comfort zone. I want the dish to be really yummy. To be tasty. This is what I learned from my roots.
What inspires your dishes? Definitely people and travel, because in Singapore we import 95% of what we cook, so some chefs—they are in France—buy ingredients that they see growing and they are surrounded by ingredients. So I would say in a way it’s easier to get influenced by produce. But in my case, it is, most of the time, people and travel.
What particular place in your travels struck and has inspired you the most? It was a big slap in my face the first time I went to Japan. The first time I went to Japan, I was amazed by first of all the variety, the diversity, and most importantly, quality of produce and passion for ingredients that people have. It’s next level of dedication.
How about people? It can be anybody. As soon as you taste something or you stick to someone who is very passionate about something and who is going to be able to give you some emotion. And I think emotion go [sic], most of the time, through food to me. If you are able, as a chef, to give emotion to your guests, it is something that is not quite common.
What is the place of fine dining in 2017, where casual dining seems to have taken the forefront? You know, that is a bit of paradox for me because I come from a very humble background and I always like, I always love fine dining. And even as a kid, I never go to fine dining because we don’t have money to pay fine dining, but I always have a fascination for a beautiful restaurant, with a beautiful tablecloth, with beautiful plates and beautiful glass. It can be very minimalistic and very modern, but it has to be somehow very comfortable, very welcoming, very warm, very engaging, and this is what we try to do with the restaurant in Singapore. It is a fine dining restaurant, but we really try to make it engaging, very warm, and very hospitable. You don’t feel stiff.
How are you able to achieve that? We start from a white page, and I was not the only one working [towards it]. We worked with an interior designer. We work with my business partner. We work with the local artists. We work with many, many, many people who bring their little inputs to make the experience as it is now.
What value does fine dining bring to people? We are human beings, and once in a while we like to indulge in something special. Personally, when I go out to a restaurant, sometimes I want to eat something simple. Sometimes I want to indulge myself in something that I can’t cook, and I think for the people who come to us, we have to propose them something that they can’t cook. Something different.
What does fine dining mean in 2017? Fine dining means pushing quality and consistency to an extreme level, and trying to combine the two. This is fine dining.
How important is ambiance and interior to the dining experience? It is an everything experience. Every detail counts. And this is what fine dining is also. From the first step into the restaurant until the last, every single detail: from the plates, from the music.,from the temperature, from the lighting, from the texture of the linen, from the sharpness of the knife you’re going to use… Everything single the details, everything that you touch, you smell, you [hear] counts.
You have talked about the importance of political discussion in past interviews. How does the art of cooking have a voice in a political conversation? Food is a topic that can [bring] people together, in a period that is difficult for many of us. Food is a topic that everyone can understand. Food is a topic that can really procure happiness to anybody, and for this, it’s a vector of communication, it’s a vector of transmission and of emotion, and it is unique for that.
You have said that you do not identify yourself as an artist. But would you call cooking an art? I… I don’t know that. It is difficult to think about. I don’t like to be called an artist because for me, if you consider yourself an artist, you reached the [peak] of your craft and you know how to do everything and you master every single piece of produce, ingredient, techniques. This is an artist. I don’t think there is artist. I think there is artisan.